The empty landscape
Empty landscapes aren’t truly empty. They are still governed by the same physical laws that any landscape is bound by. Light still affects the surface as it would any landscape, except that subtle tonal variances are more apparent to the human eye.
Empty landscapes also remove the temptation to get hung up on the ‘what’ and focus more on the ‘why’. Subject matter is almost secondary, and if present, is there only to support the emotional response brought on by the tonal and luminous qualities of the light. Indeed, subtle tonal variances seem to be the basis for any image making in empty landscapes. This is what the Altiplano excels at. It offers a fascinating array of minimal landscapes under some of the most beautiful high-altitude light I’ve witnessed.
However, it does takes time to begin to see subtle tonal variations on offer, and to utilise them in one’s photography. For example, I can forgive anyone who visits the Salar de Uyuni for the first time for assuming that it is just a vast plain of white. To the uninitiated, that is what there is. But to the experienced photographer who has photographed this place many times, the salt flat provides endless variances of tonal response across its flat surface. So much so, that I don’t feel I’ve truly been able to capture the essence of it, because part of its beauty is in the transient nature of the light that plays upon it.
Making images here is also difficult because the human visual system is not capable of seeing true dynamic range. We are essentially blind to gradual tonal variances and often confuse two different areas of a subject as having the same luminance or colour when in fact they differ greatly. This begs the question: If our eyes deceive us while reading tones in the landscape, then what else are we oblivious to? Quite a lot, I believe.
But we can and do learn from empty landscapes. Whereas busy scenes hide distractions and tonal imperfections because our eye is far too busy absorbing what is there, empty landscapes are uncompromising in showing us subtle problems, once we begin to ‘see’. Just like any small problem when magnified, what may be acceptable under other circumstances soon becomes quite glaring and annoying. As a result of working in empty places, I’ve become more selective to the kinds of tones I wish to record, and this, I believe, has pushed my photography and my visual awareness to a higher level.
If I were to sum up what I think photography is, I would say it is a life-long study of tone and form, and of improving one’s own visual awareness. We start off blind to our surroundings, often overcomplicating our compositions because we don’t see what is before us as it truly is, and over time we become more aware of tone and form. Over time, we slowly come to accept that less is often more, and even then, sometimes less is still too much. In essence, we begin to understand that empty landscapes aren’t really empty at all.